Behind the Music: A Week with the Virginia Symphony

 

A vigor more than earth’s is in thy notes. ~ Walt Whitman

 

AT THE MOMENT, I AM ENVELOPED BY SILENCE. I sit in Chrysler Hall, alone, on a Wednesday evening, looking out across the rows of empty red-cushioned seats arranged in gentle arcs; gradually, I allow my gaze to drift upward along the walls’ soaring, sound-polished wooden panels. The spaciousness, the imposing stage, the white, gracefully contoured side-balconies draw forth memories of concerts past and anticipations of concerts yet to come. And so, I close my eyes, at peace, not simply because all is quiet, but because I dwell, as Emily Dickinson once said, in possibility.

Soon the musicians of the Virginia Symphony will arrive, and slowly they will take their seats onstage. The silence will not be broken. That is too harsh a word. I prefer to think instead that all of the instrumentalists, as they gather in groups of two or three, will begin to harmonize with the silence and build upon it with their purposeful warm-ups.

And this it how it happens. A lone, brass-bright arpeggio emerges from an instrument unseen. Then three horn players take the stage and begin to practice their parts. A bass clarinetist is next, followed by several violinists. Behind them, a percussionist taps his tambourine, not casually the way most people would, but in deep concentration and with the utmost precision. This last image, more than any other, brings a basic truth into sharp relief: In an orchestra, as in the theater, there are no unimportant roles.

By 7:15 p.m., three quarters of the onstage seats are occupied, and a familiar cacophony fills the hall. There is something paradoxical in this sound. Dozens of musicians, having long ago developed an ability to block out all distraction, are absorbed in their own private worlds, practicing the passages that concern them most. There is no harmony in the traditional sense of the word. It is aural chaos. But it is lovely, nonetheless. For it is the sound of dedication to an art form.

Each of these musicians embodies that commitment as they prepare for the first of four rehearsals leading up to one of the most musically challenging concerts of the season. Seventy-two hours from now, they’ll be facing a packed house—and every one of the more than 2,000 people present will expect something close to perfection.

THE PROCESS I’m witnessing tonight began more than a year ago, when Virginia Symphony director JoAnn Falletta and her associates selected the music to be played during the 2000-2001 season. This particular program comprises three pieces: The Mystic Trumpeter, Frederick Shepherd Converses’s musical interpretation of a poem by Walt Whitman; Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major.

The Converse, Falletta knows, will pose a special challenge. Since it is a little-known work that is not currently available on record, most of the musicians have not heard it before. Each musician received the music for his or her part well in advance of the concert. But they will not know how those parts come together until they play it for the first time in rehearsal, just days before show time.

The Prokofiev, on the other hand, is a very familiar work. Nevertheless, it is terribly demanding. And that’s what keeps it fresh.

“The musicians are especially looking forward to playing the Prokofiev,” Falletta tells me. “They all know it, but it’s not something they get to play very often.”

Falletta, by contrast, has conducted the piece several times in recent years with different orchestras and has done it seven times in all. Each concert date has been recorded in pen in the front of her score, which is marked throughout with layer upon layer of musical ideas. Scribbled at the top of one page, for example, is a notation indicating that a “breath” is called for at a particular section. A year or more after making that note to herself, Falletta added the words, “Maybe not.”

“It’s a record of a journey,” she says. “Each time I revisit it I see things that I didn’t see before. It’s like rereading a great book. You bring different life experiences to it, and the meaning keeps evolving.”

What also changes, Falletta says, is her set of expectations, which she adjusts in accordance with the character of each ensemble she leads.

“Every orchestra has  a different personality,” she says. The Buffalo Philharmonic, for example, which she began directing last year, has a lot of musicians in their 60s and 70s and is therefore more staid than the Virginia Symphony. “This is a very muscular and youthful orchestra,” Falletta says of our local orchestra. “It’s filled with energy. If I do the same piece with Buffalo, I know I have to take it down a notch on the metronome.”

In light of this characterization, one can understand why the musicians are excited about playing the Prokofiev. It seems to suit them. Falletta describes it as a piece of “unrelenting intensity and searing emotion.”

Juilliard-trained first violinist Vahn Armstrong concurs: “It calls for a very wide range of colors,” he says, “and some very hard-edged sonorities and driving rhythms.” Then he pauses for a moment before summing it all up: “It’s a kick-ass piece.”

CONSIDERING THE CIRCUMSTANCES under which the symphony was written, it’s easy to understand where the composition’s raw power comes from. Prokofiev left his native Russia after the Revolution of 1917, and after spending several years in the United States he moved to Paris. A decade later, he began once again to give concerts in his homeland, and by 1936 he had resettled there. It was a tragic decision. For the remainder of his life, he labored in the shadows of Stalinism. As Falletta puts it: “Stalin controlled music rigidly. Even though he was uncultured, he knew the power of music.”

In particular, during World War II, he issued a mandate to composers: They were to write music glorifying war so as to galvanize the suffering and potentially rebellious Russian people. Prokofiev agreed only to write something that would “glorify the human spirit.” By the time he had finished the 5th Symphony in 1944, he was able to elaborate on this idea. The symphony, Prokofiev announced, was a tribute to “the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.”

When it premiered in January 1945, it was extremely well received. The following year, he won the Stalin Prize. But no new work of his was ever again acclaimed with the same enthusiasm. Indeed, he was subsequently subjected to government intimidation and criticism. The official objection was that he had ventured too far into “formalism,” but it seems plausible that the power of the 5th Symphony, which had severed the state to some degree toward the end of the war, later came to be regarded as dangerous.

In any event, Prokofiev never regained his stature. As critic Michael Stienberg has noted, “He continued to compose, but when he died—not quite an hour before Stalin—he was a defeated man.”The tension between despair and hope, defeat and triumph, is what makes the 5th Symphony so powerful.

AS FALLETTA CLIMBS ONTO THE PODIUM and prepares to begin the first full rehearsal of this formidable composition, it occurs to me that she is carrying all of this in her mind and heart. Every technical consideration—every idea she has about tempo and balance, tone and texture—is rooted deeply in her understanding of the composer’s suffering and sense of hope. Ironically, however, she projects not even a wisp of angst. The energy is there, certainly, but she seems to be holding it—easily—in reserve; as she speaks to the musicians, she is at once serious and light-hearted.

The members of the orchestra are intimately familiar with both sides of her personality, and she will reveal these characteristics many times over the next few days.

The rehearsal begins in earnest, as all rehearsals do, with the orchestra taking a final tuning check. All the cacophony of the last 45 minutes suddenly flattens out into a single, unified sound. And seconds later, the musicians begin to play the first movement.

It starts slowly—though not quite as slowly as Prokofiev’s original tempo marking suggests that it should.

“I did try to get as close as possible to his intention, while still maintaining a forward momentum,” Falletta tells me later. “I try to imagine the beginning of a symphony as a thread of momentum that draws the listener through to the very end of the piece.”

The momentum, certainly, is there. Observers can sense it, and it appears that Falletta can sense it as well. As the first-movement tension builds, her eyes close. A moment later, however, her expression changes. With eyes wide open, she projects a fierce, focused intensity, as if she is driving a chariot. The “strikingly dissonant chords,” to borrow Steinberg’s words, lead to “a towering fortissimo” before the movement comes to a dramatic finish.

When it is all over, Falletta wastes no time. Quickly, she moves back to the beginning. The orchestra will play the first movement all over again, but this time they will break it down phrase by phrase, measure by measure.

What’s striking during this whole process is that Falletta has heard and mentally filed so many aural nuances. Her comments to the players focus on tempo and balance. In one particular passage, she wants to hear the strings slip “underneath” the woodwinds; she wants to hear the cellos maintain a forte resonance as they move into the lower notes; she wants to hear the flutes and bassoons by themselves, then just the strings, then the cellos so she can make sure that each section stands out when it’s supposed to—and that all are ultimately joined seamlessly to the whole.

Nearby, she has an aide. During the run-through of the first movement, associate conductor Wes Kenney has been moving from one part of the hall to another in an effort to get a sense of tonal balance. This, as it turns out, is very helpful to Falletta.

“The conductor, when you think about it, is standing in the absolute worst place to hear an orchestra,” Kenney says. “You’re right there in the middle of the strings section. You don’t always hear things as clearly as you would like.”

The section leaders, too, have been doing their part so Falletta doesn’t have to take care of every little detail. While she is talking to the woodwind players, for example, Vahn Armstrong has been discussing a “bowing problem.” With the other violinists. It’s not enough to play the right notes. Varying the bowing patterns affects the tone, if ever so slightly.

“There are a lot of subtleties,” he says. “It’s hard to convey how important they are.”

The technical demands are indeed considerable. But unfolding in counterpoint to this rigorous process of refinement is a mood of camaraderie. These people are working hard. But it’s clear that they’re also having fun. Throughout the rehearsal, the musicians whisper to one another and share gentle laughter. Most know that this spirit is not to be taken for granted. In many other orchestras, it is absent—members bicker amongst themselves or don’t talk much at all. Six-year member Carter Mellin, a cellist, sums up in a single line the feelings of his colleagues: “This,” he says, “is one of he nicest orchestras on the planet.”

SOME OF THE ORCHESTRA MEMBERS, in fact, are more than just friends. Vahn Armstrong recently married Symphony violinst Amanda Gates, and principal flutist Debra Wendells Cross can look to her right during any rehearsal or concert and see her husband, principal percussionist Rob Cross. There are at least a half-dozen other married couples in the ensemble, and this surprises no one. “We keep such odd hours,” says Armstrong. “It’s difficult to meet people outside the Symphony.”

That face might be discouraging to some. Certainly, orchestra members all over the world must live with it. But in the Virginia Symphony, at least, many members seem to appreciate the upside of having to spend long evening hours together. For them, the orchestra is an extended family. Indeed, they see each other not only during Symphony rehearsals and concerts, but at other gigs as well. Many of the musicians here tonight, for example, came directly from an afternoon rehearsal with the Virginia Opera.

This sort of juggling act poses professional as well as personal challenges. Bassist Tom Reel notes that it is not unusual for the musicians to be working several programs simultaneously. But as he says this, there is no hint of tension in his face or voice. The demands keep him on his toes. But like his fellow musicians in this ensemble, he seems incredibly at ease.

The serious yet relaxed atmosphere can be attributed to Falletta’s work-style. During the course of this rehearsal week, Falletta never once loses her temper, and when she wants individual instruments or sections to change the way they’re playing a particular passage, she speaks in a non-threatening, conversational tone. “We probably shouldn’t do this,” she says at one point., commenting on some small detail affecting the violin section. Later, when several musicians ask Falletta if she can give them a stronger cue for a particular passages, she tries to accommodate them, but it feels awkward. Everyone can tell, by the look on her face, and the entire orchestra erupts in laughter.

 

“I’ll work on it,” Falletta says with a smile.

During a break she shares her thoughts on her firm but gentle approach. “They’re giving 100 percent anyway,” she says. “If they’re relaxed and enjoying themselves at rehearsal I think that helps a lot.”

Principal horn player David Wick, who is now in his 20th year with the Symphony, says this attitude is very much appreciated.: “There’s a genuine feeling here that the conductor is on your side. You’re not trying to do your best out of fear.”

At some point, at least a half-dozen other musicians will tell me much the same thing. They’ve worked under other conductors who rule by intimidation. And they’ll likely do it again. A job is a job. But under such circumstances, the joy of being an artist is lost.

Here, the joy and laughter will come back again and again. It will come back, in particular, when the orchestra is rehearsing The Mystic Trumpeter, which, you’ll remember, truly is a mystery to this group. They have practiced their parts on their own, but they still have no idea how the piece will sound as a whole. At one point, after they’ve  begun to play it for the first time, the bass clarinetist finds himself playing an unexpected solo. What happened to everyone else? He thinks for a a moment; his startled look provides another light-hearted moment for the ensemble.

Wick offers yet another, when a passage in the Converse piece reminds him of a famous Brahms horn solo. And so, without warning, he begins playing it while everyone else is continuing with the The Mystic Trumpeter. The music finally comes to a halt as everyone else picks up on the musical joke. Falletta seems to appreciate it most of all.

THE FRIENDLY INTERACTIONS, the laughter at musical jokes and missteps, the sense of harmony between conductor and orchestra, are somewhat misleading. All of it is pure and genuine—there’s no question about that. But it would be a big mistake, I realize, to take this warm, relaxed atmosphere as a sign that there is no tension within the individual musicians. The nervousness is there; it’s just kept under control.

Each musician has his own methods of dealing with pre-performance anxiety. Everyone in the group knows, for example, that Vahn Armstrong—who, as concertmaster, is the last to walk on stage before Falletta herself—always plays Bach right before a concert, no matter what’s on the program. (The ritual inspired Falletta to write a poem about it.)

The program on this particular Saturday night is so unusual that Falletta picks up a microphone after walking on stage and turns to the audience. She acknowledges that she doesn’t often speak to the audience immediately before picking up her baton, but in this case she feels compelled to talk about The Mystic Trumpeter. It is a little-known piece, she observes, but it is representative of a group of works that laid the groundwork for American music in the 20th century. The “trumpet” in the Whitman poem that inspired the piece is not a particular instrument, she adds, but the “trumpet that plays in our souls.”

The packed house is riveted and perks up all the more when Falletta mentions the fact that the orchestra will be playing the piece “for the first time in our lives tonight.” (At least in public.) The performance lives up to expectations. By the time it ends, just 21 minutes later, there is a sense in the hall that the musicians and audience members have discovered something new together.

In sharp contrast to this unfamiliar work, the next piece on the program is Rachmaninoff’s beloved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Joining the orchestra for this performance is world-renown pianist Gustavo Romero. During rehearsals, all went smoothly—and tonight it shows. The crowd is dazzled by the pianist’s brilliant technique and moved by his soulful interpretation. The orchestra shines as well, and both ensemble and guest artist receive a standing ovation. But the biggest moment is still to come.

Any piece by Prokofiev, the musicians know, is potentially off-putting for classical concertgoers, many of whom shy away from 20th century works. But as soon as they begin to play the transcendent opening melody, the audience is theirs.

At least that’s how I see it. The reactions are really quite varied, of course. Some have let their minds drift, no doubt, to thoughts of the next day’s chores; others have nodded off, if only briefly. A few probably aren’t enjoying it at all.

I can’t help wondering, in light of this, how much of my own reactions are intensified by the fact that I have immersed myself in the rehearsals this week. Surely this has had an effect. But in the end, the vast majority of my fellow music lovers appear to feel as I do.

As the musicians play the final, galloping passages of the fourth movement, their  energy pulses through the hall. And seconds after the piece ends, with a fist-in-the-air snese of triumph, we are on our feet.

As Falletta turns to acknowledge the second standing ovation of the evening, she looks absolutely exhausted. Gazing at her, I can’t help wondering how she feels about the performance. Is she simply trying to catch her breath? Or is she displeased in some way?

Later, I learn that she was quite satisfied. When I ask several of the musicians how they feel, they express similar sentiments—with some reservations. “It was OK,” one tells me. “I missed some notes. I wish we had had just one more rehearsal.”

Tom Reel, the bassist, echoes this remark. When I speculate that few, if any, of the audience members picked up on these mistakes, he draws a neat analogy for me. “When you’re sitting out there,” he says, “you’re looking at the forest and you’re focused on how beautiful it is. But I’m up here, and I’m not just looking at a tree. I’m looking at one leaf on a tree. If there’s a flaw in it, I’m going to notice.”

 

As another musician puts it, however, “the passion and energy were there.” Technical precision is crucial, they all agree. But getting the message of the music across is what counts most. And conveying the message of a piece like the Prokofiev Fifth is one of the most powerful experiences a musician can have. As trombonist Rod Martell puts it, “It’s why we all went into music in the first place.”

 

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